The 2016 Campaign Probably Doesn’t Matter, Except That it Does

While "fundamentals" will have more impact on choosing our next president than what happens on the campaign trail, the race itself is important.

Campaign 2016

Doug Sosnik, one-time political director for Bill Clinton, explains why “The End of the 2016 Election Is Closer Than You Think.” The explanation will not surprise most political scientists or readers of The Monkey Cage (or even OTB):

In eight out of the last nine presidential elections these decisive periods of time can all be traced back to the run up to the general election—not the fall campaign. With the exception of the 2000 election—which was an outlier on every front—voters locked in their attitudes about the direction of the country, the state of their own well-being and the presidential candidates—and their political party—prior to the start of the general election. Once voters’ views solidified, subsequent campaign events or activities simply served to reinforce their initial perceptions about the candidate and party best prepared to lead the country.

In general, the job approval ratings of the incumbent president, regardless of whether they are running for reelection, serve as a proxy for the electorate’s mood and have historically been the most accurate predictor of election outcomes.  And the public’s view of the state of the economy and its expectations for the future are the strongest drivers of the job approval ratings of the sitting president. Since 1980 there have been five presidential elections where the incumbent had a job approval rating near or above 50 percent prior to the start of the general election. In each of these elections, the incumbent’s party won the election. In the three instances when the incumbent president’s job approval fell below 40 percent prior to the start of the general election, their party lost each time.

Campaigns and candidates matter mostly at the margins at the presidential level. While it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day ups and downs of the campaign, focusing on every little gaffe or gotcha, they tend not to matter much. Most voters cast their ballots for the nominee of their party and the rest vote mostly based on their perception of the state of the economy and whether the country is “moving in the right direction.”

Additionally, Sosnik notes, the mechanics mitigate against late fluctuation:

There has also been a steady increase in voters casting ballots long before Election Day, with 33 states plus the District of Columbia allowing some form of early voting. Today, every state west of the Mississippi allows early voting. In three of those states—Colorado, Oregon and Washington—all votes are cast by mail before Election Day. In the 2012 election, nationwide 32 percent of all ballots were cast early, with an increasing number of states allowing voting to begin 45 days before Election Day. In these states ballots are being cast prior to the fall presidential debates.

Amusingly, the rest of Sosnik’s column is about the infighting in the Republican Party, the GOP’s system for delegate allocation that delays the selection of the nominee and allows him to be beat up longer than necessary, and other things that, by Sosnik’s own admission, really don’t matter.

Except that they do.

Yesterday morning, Politico digital editor Blake Hounshel and Caerus CEO Erin Simpson bantered on Twitter about the horse race coverage of campaigns. Hounshel began with “Your daily reminder that online polls with low sample sizes, dubious screens and a high margin of error are hot garbage,” to which Simpson added “I’d say that’s true of all polls more than a year out.” Hounshel retorted, “only if the standard is who will win on Election Day, vs. what’s the state of the race right now,” later adding, “a presidential race is a window into the country’s hopes and fears. It’s not just about who wins and loses.”

He’s right.

The outcome of the 2012 election was in doubt until early October because President Obama’s approval numbers were rather low during the spring and summer*:

But beyond that, the race gave us a view of the zeitgeist, spotlighting not only the internal divisions within the Republican Party but also the national clash over income inequality, class resentments, and the outsized influence of financial elites on the political process.  While the Occupy Wall Street movement had focused some attention on income inequality the previous year, it likely wasn’t as meaningful as the emergence of billionaire funders like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers, Mitt Romney’s leaked comments about the “43 percent,” car elevators, and all the rest.

We’ll likely see the same thing again. Obama’s approval ratings are currently just below the 50% threshold but have been trending decisively upward over the last six months. On the other hand, 60% currently think the country is on the wrong track. Thus, while Hillary Clinton has to be the betting favorite, we may well see a competitive race and the Republican nominee having more than a puncher’s chance.

More importantly, though, the long contest without an incumbent will force both parties to examine who they want to be over a period of months. While it’s almost inconceivable that Clinton won’t be the nominee, debates with Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Jim Webb will reveal real fractures in the Democratic coalition. We already know that the Republicans are fractured, of course, but it’ll be interesting to see how the party deals with recent setbacks on Obamacare, gay marriage, and the Confederate flag. Will either party address gun violence and police brutality? Will we have a real debate on foreign policy?

None of those issues are likely to be decisive in choosing our next president, at least compared to the state of the economy and public perception of the overall state of affairs. But the conversation itself will force the next president to think through the issues, go on the record on matters they’d prefer to have ignored, and otherwise lay out a governing philosophy. That’s a good thing.
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*The embeddable widget unfortunately won’t show the custom date. The version at the site allows specifying discrete periods.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, Politics 101, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    Since you mention The Monkey Cage, I like Larry Bartel’s model, which is based on GDP growth in the last two quarters of the election year and party tenure. I haven’t checked, but I suspect presidential approval correlates with GDP growth, So Bartel’s and Sosnik are telling kind of the same story. But Bartel’s tenure component worries me, less for ’16 than for ’20. I call it the rainbows and unicorns factor. At some point the electorate looks around and says the Xs have been in power as long as I can remember and we still don’t have rainbows and unicorns, vote the bums out.

    For the 2012 election, Obama seemed to be well aware that the electorate have no memory beyond six months and didn’t get into serious campaign mode until the spring of ’12. I’ll be waiting curiously to see how enthusiastically he goes into campaign mode next year to help Hillary and the Party both directly and by pulling up his own approval. I also hope he manipulates the Fed into easing rates. They seem to do it for Randolph Scott Republicans.

    No matter what O and Hillary do, outside events could easily push Jeb! Bush?, or whoever into office, a Chinese collapse, fallout from low growth in Europe, a crisis in the Middle East, or a hundred other things.

  2. superdestroyer says:

    The idea that GDP growth or foreign events could possibly affect the outcome of the general election in 2016 is laughable. How can anyone be taken seriously when they use data from 1980 when voters were more than 80% white to 2016 where voters will be about 60% white is laughable.

    What the graph on approval rating shows is how high the floor is for any Democratic President and how that floor will increase to crime. What political scientist should really be thinking about is whether there is any way for the 2016 election to be competitive or was 2004 the last time that the Republicans were competitive and whether, at the presidential level, the U.S. is now a one party state and it is just a matter of time before Congress catches up?

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    I’m not a big fan of Hillary Clinton but looking at the Republican field of clowns, Bible thumpers and empty suites I will end up voting for Hillary anyway

  4. Davebo says:

    Thank goodness! I woke this morning not realizing just how horrible it is being a white male in America.

    Thankfully SD woke me up.

  5. gVOR08 says:

    @Ron Beasley: I may vote for Bernie in the primary, if he’s still in. But only if I feel Hillary has a lock. Otherwise we can’t afford to be sending messages. You’re right, the best and brightest (relatively) of that GOP Clown act are scary.

  6. Tyrell says:

    Sanders is playing to big, enthusiastic crowds, pitching his popular message to the middle class and seniors. Likewise Trump is getting big, noisy crowds who like his 100 mph in your face talk about the immigration disaster. Hillary may be biding her time, not talking too much and not saying anything when she does in her Oprahesque discussions, waiting for others to burn themselves out and then another “flavor of the month” candidate pops up and gets the people and media to sample them.

  7. Hal_10000 says:

    Since 1980 there have been five presidential elections where the incumbent had a job approval rating near or above 50 percent prior to the start of the general election. In each of these elections, the incumbent’s party won the election. In the three instances when the incumbent president’s job approval fell below 40 percent prior to the start of the general election, their party lost each time.

    Holy small sample size, Batman! That’s a whole eight elections, five of which involved an incumbent. For open elections, it’s a whole three data points.

    Look, you can always find some predictor in electoral politics if you narrow your sample enough (see, e.g., the Redskins Rule). It always works … until it doesn’t. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read “well, when the party in power is lead by a leader with two e’s in their name and the cock crows three times before breakfast, the challenger wins!”. Such rules always hold up 100% when you look at past elections. Their track record on predicting future elections is poor.

    (These rules also get some additional leeway from the 2000 election, which you can claim as a victory for either side, depending on what you’re trying to prove.)

    Yes, having a popular incumbent gives a party an advantage. And having an unpopular incumbent hurts them. That can be a factor if the election is close. It will still boil down to the actual candidates. Obama could have a popularity rating of 30% and the Republicans would still lose if they nominated Rick Santorum.

  8. superdestroyer says:

    @Hal_10000:

    It is impossible for President Obama to get to an approval rating of 30%. I believe the floor for President Obama is around 40% as shown in the graph above. What is amazing is how much the floor is for Democrats than for Republicans.

  9. JKB says:

    Yeah, I don’t think there will be much value-added to being a political “scientist” in the 2016 election. Past stats aren’t going to work, maybe some lesson from the 1980 campaign can be found.

    2016 is going to be a gut-busting soul of the country election, whether you think that is a good thing or not. Christians just got handed serious defeat and instead of stopping there, activist have already started going after Christianity directly, but oddly, not Islam. I guess the activist don’t want to lose their head over marriage. Sure, there’s the personally bankrupting fine of the cake baker in Oregon, but also someone has already filed suit against a Bible publisher over the Bible’s position on homosexual acts. And we have the suit for polygamous marriage.

    But more importantly, as seen on OTB, there are those who want to really go after the guns.

    Oh and let’s not forget the recent change in Oregon permitting 15-yr olds to get a sex change without their parents knowledge.

    I see those above being very motivating of the electorate, but I don’t see that electorate voting for 4 more years of Democrat.

    So what, pray tell, will get the dependable Democrat voters out? More Clinton Crony Corruption? More sanctuary cities? Their chance to totally annihilate “Protestant” and “Work” and “Ethic”?

    In any case, if Democrats plan on finding bags of ballots in the trunk when a crucial precinct is going against them, they should make sure that trunk is in an old Cadillac, not a Prius.

    All I’d predict right now is a big voter turnout, maybe across the board, but definitely on the Christian/gun-rights/traditional-values side.

  10. Scott says:

    Christians just got handed serious defeat.

    Nonsense. As a practicing Christian, I object to the extreme narrowing of what a Christian is. Flat out sick of tired of the right wing trying of defining what a Christian is and isn’t.

    And we have the suit for polygamous marriage

    Polygamy is quite Biblical, you know.

    What we are seeing today is the majority of Americans finally getting sick and tired of being bullies by the religious right in this country. Yes, the country is going to be taken back but not in the way you think.

  11. humanoid.panda says:

    @JKB:

    All I’d predict right now is a big voter turnout, maybe across the board, but definitely on the Christian/gun-rights/traditional-values side.

    There are some days that I think to myself that maybe, being a relatively recent arrival to America, and having spent all my time in campus town among liberals, I am trapped in a epystemological bubble, and maybe conservatives have points I am not willing to concede because of implicit liberal social pressure of living in such an environment. And then, I read comments like JKB’s and understand, that no, those guys are really idiots. Thank you JKB!

  12. An Interested Party says:

    Christians just got handed serious defeat and instead of stopping there, activist have already started going after Christianity directly…

    Apparently, just as it is so horrible being white in this country, it is terrible being a Christian…these poor oppressed majorities…how do they deal with all the pain…

  13. humanoid.panda says:

    And seriously, I know that JKB is not here to debate but to troll but: so a crazy ex-con filed a suit Bible publishers. Few months ago, some crazy dude in California tried to put out a referendum out there on mandating the executions of homosexuals. What does either case teach us outside the fact America is not lacking for idiots?

  14. humanoid.panda says:
  15. humanoid.panda says:

    And, of course, I was giving JKB way too much credit:

    A story circulating in conservative circles says a man named Bradley LaShawn Foster filed suit in a Michigan federal courthouse Monday against a pair of bible publishers for their role in causing him twenty years of emotional distress. As it turns out, like with most things circulating in conservative circles, the story is propaganda being used to create outrage against the LGBT community, because hating them just because is never enough.

    It’s propaganda because it happened seven years ago, not Monday of this week, but the story is absolutely true. Mr. Foster did in fact file suit in Michigan against two publishers for printing versions of the Bible that were improperly translated, causing discrimination against homosexuals.

    There is NO case pending in any federal court by a gay man suing a Bible publisher.
    According to public record, the case was dismissed with prejudice in March of 2009 with no judgement, meaning Fowler lost and can’t re-file. Fowler’s hand written complaint and lack of resources prevented him from obtaining legal counsel, and from the beginning his case was doomed.

    Had his case gone to trial, he would certainly have still lost, as the publishing of any translation of the Bible is protected under the First Amendment. That doesn’t mean Fowler didn’t have some very valid points, he just didn’t have anyone to sue.

    http://www.addictinginfo.org/2015/07/10/gay-man-sues-bible-publisher-for-70m-for-causing-him-distress-turns-out-hes-not-crazy/

    So, JKB: a liar, a dupe, or a lying dupe? We report, you decide!

  16. gVOR08 says:

    So, JKB: a liar, a dupe, or a lying dupe? We report, you decide!

    As a general rule it’s safe to go with the answer to headline questions is NO, and the answer to dichotomies is YES. Lying dupe.

  17. JKB says:

    @humanoid.panda:

    @Scott:

    Do you think any of that changes my assertion that many will be motivated to vote in 2016?

    I didn’t look up the Bible lawsuit story, but it doesn’t have to be true, just credible, to be motivating.

    I live in a conservative, religious-dominated area, many people have said that they believe if Hillary wins, the country is lost. Regardless of your thoughts on the validity of that opinion, it is and will be a motivating factor in the election.

    Now, my question is, what are the motivating factors on the Left? What will bring them out to the polls? Four more years of the country in the same direction? Digging up the graves of Confederate generals? Ensuring multi-felon illegal immigrants have sanctuary? Giving urban poor “space to destroy”? The right to urinate in the middle of NYC’s Upper West Side?

  18. stonetools says:

    While it’s almost inconceivable that Clinton won’t be the nominee, debates with Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Jim Webb will reveal real fractures in the Democratic coalition.

    Pretty sure that’s not going to happen. The Democratic Party is united around a somewhat left of Obama economic and political program. There isn’t really a dime’s worth of difference between Sanders, Clinton, and O’Malley (except maybe on gun control) and nobody, but nobody, is thinking of pulling a Nader. Every liberal that I know is looking at the nomination process through the prism of electing a Democratic President in 2016. I’ve never seem such unity among the liberals and Democrats in my lifetime. Seems that the Republican freak show has done what Will Rogers said could never be done-united Democrats.
    Webb is irrelevant to this. He might have been a viable Democratic candidate in 1996. In 2016, he has a better chance of being nominated in the Republican Party.

  19. humanoid.panda says:

    @JKB:

    I didn’t look up the Bible lawsuit story, but it doesn’t have to be true, just credible, to be motivating.

    So, in other words, lies are ok? What if you start spreading stories about gay people raping children in public playgrounds? That’s motivating, so no worries, right?

    I live in a conservative, religious-dominated area, many people have said that they believe if Hillary wins, the country is lost. Regardless of your thoughts on the validity of that opinion, it is and will be a motivating factor in the election.

    So, the country was not ruined after 8 years of Kenyan socialism after all, and is NOW in danger of ruin? Like seriously, what are the odds your neighbors weren’t convinced OBama will destroy the country in 2008 and 2012? Like seriously, if Barack HUSSEIN Obama didn’t motivate them to come out, what makes you think Hillary will?

    Four more years of the country in the same direction?

    Actually yes. Hillary will contrast the last 8 years, and the 8 years of her husband’s administration, to the 8 years of the W administration, and ask a simple question: under which regime you are better off. Add to that the fact that the kind of religious-nativist campaign you are envisioning will draw 1.2 Democratic voter for every GOP voter it activates, and you have a result somewhere between 2008 and 2012.

  20. humanoid.panda says:

    The Walker strategy, so beatifully elaborated by JKB here basically runs into demographic reality, as laid out beautifully here:

    Basically, there are four types of American voters: urban, urban-suburban, exurban, and rural. Obam destroyed the GOP in the first two locations, and Romney and McCAin won more narrowly in the latter two. What’s more, cities and urban-suburban areas are growing, while exurbs stagnate, and rural areas shrink. What Walker and JKB are proposing is to double down on a losing strategy, by making the GOP more attractive to rural voters, an impossible feat, because there is no one out there more terrified of Hillary than they were of Obama, at the price of making the urban and urban-suburban margins even bigger. In other words, it’s a strategy to win “Real America” not the real-existing America..

  21. humanoid.panda says:

    @stonetools:

    Webb is irrelevant to this. He might have been a viable Democratic candidate in 1996. In 2016, he has a better chance of being nominated in the Republican Party.

    Hell, if I were the GOP, I’d try and make him my VP nominee. At the very least, he will put Virginia in play, and will get lots of positive coverage from the media, where it’s still 1994.

  22. wr says:

    @JKB: “Christians just got handed serious defeat and instead of stopping there, activist have already started going after Christianity directly, but oddly, not Islam”

    Really? Did the Supreme Court rule that Muslim communities can ban same sex marriage? That Muslim county clerks can refuse to issue marriage licenses based on their religious beliefs? Because somehow that part didn’t get mentioned in the press — not even on Fox.

    Maybe you could take a break from your self-pity party and explain what you mean.

  23. Dave D says:

    @humanoid.panda: This Cross of Gold strategy has been a loser since William Jennings Bryant, and he was a populist.

  24. stonetools says:

    @humanoid.panda:

    Hillary was pilloried for this in 2008, but I think that it is indeed possible that Hillary might be more attractive to voters in Appalachia ( the most racist part of the country according to Wapo).
    Does mean that Hillary can take Kentucky or Missouri? Nope, but it does mean that she can pad margins in Ohio and Pennslyvania and force the Republicans to defend Indiana and North Carolina. Might help down ticket too.
    Bottom line, she can replicate the Obama 2012 map and maybe have coattails in the down ticket races. Of course, a lot can happen between now and Election Day 2016. But the fundamentals look good enough that it would take an extraordinary Republican candidate to beat Clinton-and the Republican candidates ain’t extraordinary, except in being awful.

  25. humanoid.panda says:

    @stonetools: I think that the Obama years have hardened the divorce between the Democratic party and Appalachian voters to an extent that will make her nearly as poisonous there as Obama, but we will see.
    As for the bigger picture: I agree with that. Barring an economic crisis, or a major terrorist attack, i struggle to see the GOP winning in 2016 (I however would put good money for it winning in 2020- we are due for a recession..).

  26. An Interested Party says:

    I live in a conservative, religious-dominated area, many people have said that they believe if Hillary wins, the country is lost. Regardless of your thoughts on the validity of that opinion, it is and will be a motivating factor in the election.

    Oh please…during just about every presidential election there are plenty of people who say and/or think that if X candidate wins, the country is lost….every four years the fainting couches and smelling salts should be pulled out for all these people…

  27. An Interested Party says:

    Now, my question is, what are the motivating factors on the Left?

    Wash away all your nonsense and say these three words with me: The Supreme Court…there are plenty of other factors but this one alone is a very strong motivator…

  28. Rafer Janders says:

    @JKB:

    I didn’t look up the Bible lawsuit story, but it doesn’t have to be true, just credible, to be motivating.

    And there you have it, the conservative movement in a nutshell: too dumb and unmotivated to do the research, and not caring whether what it reveals is even true or not, so long as it aligns with what they think should be true.

    Lazy, stupid and ignorant is no way to go through life, son.

  29. Blue Galangal says:

    @JKB:

    Now, my question is, what are the motivating factors on the Left? What will bring them out to the polls? Four more years of the country in the same direction? Digging up the graves of Confederate generals? Ensuring multi-felon illegal immigrants have sanctuary? Giving urban poor “space to destroy”?

    Motivating factors for me, personally? Supreme Court appointments and access to reproductive health care for women. Digging up graves of Confederate generals and setting the urban poor loose on the exurbs are just bonuses.

  30. Moosebreath says:

    @JKB:

    “but it doesn’t have to be true, just credible, to be motivating.”

    Funny, but I thought the conservative line was that it was liberals who were moral relativists who did not care about the difference between truth and falsehood.

  31. JKB says:

    I like all the quibbling over the Bible lawsuit. Suddenly, misrepresentations of the truth are bad. And in politics? In an election in which Hillary Clinton is a leading candidate? That’s rich.

    Reacting to the interview [that H. Clinton recently did on CNN], Carl Bernstein – of Woodward and Bernstein fame – offered an odd analysis of Clinton’s deceptions, conceding that Clinton has a “difficult relationship with the truth.”

    “We have to look at what politicians do generally in terms of fudging,” Bernstein added. “It’s endemic in the profession. She’s become a kind of specialist at it.”

    But apparently, while a specialist, Hillary is on par with most of politics.

    My purpose here is to highlight once again the low and uncivilized standard to which politicians are held. As Bernstein implies, politicians as a group routinely aim to deceive the public. What’s sad is the fact that this reality is interpreted by many, perhaps most, people (and it seems that Bernstein is among them) as a justification for excusing the deceits, at least as long as these deceits are no more frequent than is normal for politicians.

    So really quibbling about a true but old story?

    For a new story that I really hope the Republicans in Congress keep rolling into next year is this one about Democrats introducing legislation to purge the Federal Code and CFRs of “wife” and “husband”. Granted in relation to the law regarding the President’s wife, spouse is more appropriate.

    And, of course, there is much work to do on the state level with many states requiring consummation of opposite-sex marriages but not same-sex marriages, civil union remnants, as well as the “husband/wife” language. Each will keep the SSM matter raw for the religious voters.

  32. wr says:

    @JKB: The question isn’t over whether Hillary is a liar, but over whether you are.

    And there is no doubt that you have answered affirmatively.

    So now that you’ve ensured no one here will ever take a word you say seriously, what else is on your mind?